General topic

Social economy on the move…
at the crossroads of structural change and regulation

For some centuries, in the North as well in the South, social economy has unfolded in various forms. The institutions of the social economy (cooperatives, mutuals, nonprofit organizations, etc.) have experienced periods of growth and recession, of both success and failure, in the supporting, complementing and/or counteracting roles in relation to the dominant economic model in place. This 4th CIRIEC International Research Conference on the Social Economy aims in particular at discussing the place of social economy in modern society and its current role when facing potentially heavy structural transformations and new regulatory frameworks. Thanks to the more or less permanent dynamic features of this field in society, social economy initiatives and enterprises foster bottom up changes which in turn favour structural changes and in many cases are the agents of change in regulation. This includes for example regulation centred on non-market values, cooperative regulation, next to administrative and competitive regulation.

Structural changes are multi-facetted and depend on social, economic, financial, demographic, technological, environmental, etc. factors that all impact the sphere of social economy. This results for instance in increased globalization and competition, in less public spending, in new financing schemes, in social innovations, etc. All those changes in turn influence on the one hand the behaviour of social economy enterprises and organizations, on the other hand the answers from public authorities. How do social economy actors adapt to structural changes, possibly induced by regulatory changes: Do they shape revised answers to societal needs and challenges, or propose other types of solutions? Do they develop other behaviours in terms of governance, or new production modes (e.g. inter-cooperation)? What new or better adapted products/services do they propose? Do they foster in turn new or re-regulation?

Regulation on its side – be it at regional, national, European, international level – takes various forms and is not restricted to its economic or legal sense. It can be of statistical, legal, administrative, institutional, fiscal, budgetary, accounting, public policy, social, environmental, etc. nature. But other, more fundamental structural changes in mentality, stimuli to democratic and philosophical debate, hybridization in governance approaches, joint participation of various types of stakeholders and actors – not forgetting the mobilization by civil society actors – might also bring about the needed adaptation or revisited regulatory conditions in order to better address societal issues. What type of new regulations are encountered: introducing mandatory impact assessments, separating real flow from financial flow, adapting rules on the labour market, or determining accessibility policies, others?

Looking at the development of mutuals, cooperatives and other social economy actors, a 'systemic' role of social economy in the design of policy may be noticed. It is this reactive, circular movement that the present CIRIEC Conference aims at putting to the fore, with a particular endeavour to connect research and thinking from many different academic disciplines for a better understanding and knowledge of the social economy sector and its potential role in actively shaping the restructuring and re-regulation of contemporary society. In terms of development model, structural changes and new regulations are not aims as such, but only tools for more or less shared objectives.

The 4th CIRIEC Research Conference on the Social Economy is thus far-seeking and wishes to attract and discuss proposals to counter the idea that "There Is No Alternative" – another society is indeed possible. Social economy, with its particular feature of territorial anchorage and community-based action, provides examples of satisfactory answers to the many current global challenges of exclusion, poverty, unemployment, inequality, planet endangering, just to mention a few. But numerous questions and issues need further scrutiny.

Despite being studied by scientists and observed by politicians, actors such as cooperatives, mutual societies and nonprofit and solidarity-based organizations are not yet properly recognized and acknowledged. Their economic weight, their worth and societal added value, their capacity of innovation and adapting to change, their ability of mobilizing social networks and human capital, their entrepreneurship spirit, their role in territorial development are some of the features proving the success and potential of such actors in society. But weaknesses and difficulties must also be faced with original solutions and tools to overcome them. Many of the actors in the social economy act and develop themselves within the existing economic model but sometimes they also strive to change or challenge it, aiming to bring along sustainable and ethical answers to the latest crises and their various impacts for citizens and enterprises throughout the world and its regions.

The 2013 CIRIEC Conference in Antwerp particularly looks for multi-disciplinary analyses and approaches, for conceptual and instrumental studies, for evaluations and critical assessments to deepen the global knowledge on the sector. Contributions from scholarly disciplines such as history, sociology, political science, philosophy, law, economics, statistics, business administration, public administration, geography are invited. Alternative approaches provided by younger as well as senior researchers are welcome to show the possible answers to heavy structural transformations but also the necessary adaptations to the new regulatory frameworks. Theoretical, as well as descriptive approaches – at micro as well as macro level – are welcome.
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